Dear Sisters and Brothers,
Jesus continued the Sermon on the Mount with a humorous illustration about hypocrisy. We have heard it so many times, it doesn’t sound funny anymore. It makes a very strong point, but with humor.
[Jesus taught] “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”
Okay, your brother has a speck of dust in his eyes and you have a plank in your eye. This is not a figure of speech. Jesus means the kind of plank used in constructing a house. As a carpenter, Jesus knew all about planks and they were heavy, large and could produce a multitude of splinters. Comparing a mote of dust to a plank was like comparing a flea to a bird of prey, or a cup of water to the sea.
Hypocrisy is a fancy word for a very common thing. It actually started as the Greek word for what actors do in a play. Hypocrisy is pretending to hold moral beliefs that you don’t really have. Hypocrisy is acting like a virtuous person when you aren’t. When you say that a person “doesn’t practice what he preaches,” you are saying that he is a hypocrite.
To say that a person has a bit of dust in their eyes might be a poetic way of saying that they don’t understand things clearly or that they are not seeing things in the right way. Then the image of a plank in your eye means that you have far less understanding than the person you are criticizing.
The world has never had a shortage of critics who don’t have a clue of what they are talking about. In the book of Job, we have many chapters of useless and wrong advice from Job’s friends. These men go on for a chapter at a time with all sorts of advice that may sound reasonable, but late in the book, God speaks and tells the friends that they are completely wrong.
Hypocrisy is born of unjustified self-confidence. A person who is qualified in one area (baking, engine repair, chemistry, etc.) is a hypocrite when she starts speaking as an authority on something she knows nothing about (like contract law, weaving, or golf).
Hypocrisy is not humble. It offers its “two cents” whether asked or not. Hypocrites talk more than they listen and tend to come across as critics, bullies, or prigs.
About thirty years ago an American author wrote about the strange experience of meeting a famous astronomer. This astronomer had helped plan the path of voyager space probe missions that sent back video images of the planets Saturn, Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune in the 1970’s and 1980’s. What amazed the author was that this scientist was so brilliant that he could send an object hurtling across the solar system with pin-point accuracy was clueless about humanity and most of its concerns. What was particularly troubling was this astronomer, didn’t have the slightest clue about himself, but offered his opinions on everything.
It is helpful to remove dust from a person’s eye, but you can’t do it until after you have seen to the things that block your vision. To be critical of things that we can be criticized of is seen as ridiculous. You can see it in most comedies. There is often an immoral character who is spouting moral statements, or a lawbreaker who likes criticizing people for breaking rules, or a bossy friend who tells you how to “be yourself.”
We can be particularly mean about things in others that we dislike about ourselves. Overeaters can be very cruel about the eating problems of others, angry people complain about the bad attitudes of others, and shy people tend to avoid other shy people.
I believe that hypocrisy is almost a universal problem. We all have it, but there is a question of degrees. I’ve had more than one plank in my eyes as I was criticizing friends, family, neighbors, and strangers. Like most people, I have sometimes given advice that I was never able to follow myself. I’ve tried to keep hypocrisy out of my duties as a pastor, but I might have felt a little smug and superior (a few minutes ago) when I was writing about that clueless astronomer.
Hypocrisy is hard to avoid completely, but if we are going to share the Gospel with people, or even help people with motes in their eyes, we need to try to practice what we preach… or preach only the good things we manage to practice.
So, speaking as a recovering hypocrite, I offer these suggestions to avoid hypocrisy:
Speak the truth in love.
Be confident in what you know.
Don’t bully people.
Be kind to people who fight your same problems/demons.
Don’t spread lies, rumors, or gossip.
Don’t pronounce judgments on people.
Considering that Jesus says today’s passage immediately after talking about judging others, it is wisest to say that you can be critical of a person’s actions but not of the person. So, if you have a problem with the mayor of a nearby town, you could say “I think his policy towards homeless people is completely wrong, and he should be voted out” rather than making personal attacks on the mayor’s character and wishing him personal harm.
As Christians we are trying to share the Good News of Jesus Christ with the world. Since none of us is free from sin, we must speak with humility, acknowledgement of our own shortcomings, and an emphasis on telling the truth in a loving way. We never call a brother “a fool,” but we remove that plank from our own eyes and then help him overcome his own little foolishness.
A Question to Ponder: Are there any people I criticize for doing what I do?